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Monday, April 23, 2007

Coffee at Ernesto's

So I pushed into this little coffee box on Cuba Street called Ernesto's. The joint was humming but there were a few seats still available up against the wall. The lighting was low, with but a few candles high up on the walls, creating an intimate and gloomy kind of feel. This was just how I like a place to be, so I felt right at home.

It was the middle of the day so it was too early yet to hit the sauce, though for later there certainly was a tall glass of bourbon with my name on it at a gin mill across town. I'd been ankling the city all day, trying to pin down this hood for the murder of Lady Flagstaff's husband. The creep must have holed himself up somewhere pretty good, as suddenly nobody seemed to have heard of him so all his known associates were pretty well clammed up.

Right away the gals behind the counter smiled at me, and before I spied my seat in a booth over in the corner I couldn't help but notice the cleavage on these dames. Trust me, I'm usually a discrete kind of guy and I don't go ogling at all the broads like some mugs do. But they were bustin' out all over the place and, after all, I am a man. With a pulse. So sue me, I looked at the goods on display.

As I folded my coat and hung it up with my hat beside the booth, one of the gals came over to greet me.

"Hiya, hon, what can I get for ya today?" said a dainty little brunette, with eyes that sparkled like a pair of black opals.

"Gimme a double shot of espresso, love, neat. I don't want any of that sissy milk or sugar stuff in there. In fact, bring me two."

Her perfectly-plucked eyebrows raised as she jotted down my order on her pad. As she replaced the pencil in her hair, which was tied into a neat bun on top of her head, she let out a low whistle. "Workin' overtime today, huh sweetheart? Well you take it easy out there, and I'll have your coffees back toot sweet."

"Thanks, doll."

I looked around the joint and everything seemed to be on the up-and-up. This place was no dive, although the owner was obviously going for a run-down, inner-city Cuba sort of look with the place. Here there was a faux bullet hole in the wall, which had I not had the unfortunate familiarity that I do with guns and bullets and what they can do to a sheet of drywall (let alone a guy's mug), I might have been lead to believe it was caused by a real slug. Besides, this didn't look like the type of joint where some bozo would come in and start squirting metal, unlike some of the dives over on my side of town.

Which reminded me, I needed to start looking for a new place to bunk. The action on my street was getting kind of hot and I needed to lay low for a while. This private investigation business was starting to make me more enemies than it was dough, and I needed a little cush for my upcoming vacation. That is, if I ever knew how to take one.

Anyways, I looked at the pictures of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro on the wall, as well as the usual assortment of artifacts one might find in a cafe in downtown Havana, and decided I liked the place. The owner, a big number hulking behind the counter, had a friendly sort of mug and I certainly approved of the broads he had running the joint. The customers he had were the usual sort of suspects for an uptown place like this, and some of them seemed like the type that had high-class problems that would need a guy like me to fix. They didn't seem too short on the cabbage - or stingy with it, based on how much wine some of them were ordering - and I could always use a little extra scratch to help pay the bills.

The waitress returned with the java and put them down on the table before me. I handed her a double sawbuck and told her to keep the joe coming until that ran out.

Smiling, she tucked the bill away and winked at me, then moved on to clean some tables.

I knocked back the first cup in one go, and felt the bitter jolt of that bracing brew. "Ahh..." I said, my face locked in a temporary grimace.

That's when I saw her.

As soon as she walked through the door, I knew this looker was trouble. She had skin like alabaster and raven-dark hair. Her light brown eyes had a deceptively easy cast to them that proved to be hypnotic. I know this because as she cased the room slowly, she settled those peepers on me and gave me a knowing little smile.

She glided across the room towards my booth, and as she got closer I had to slug my second cup of joe back in order to be able to deal with an up-close encounter with this beautiful babe. And dishy as this kitten was, it wasn't until she spoke that I realized just how enchanting she could be.

"Are you the guy they call 'Brooksie'?" she asked in a dulcet, rich voice that so seduced me I must have looked like some goon who had just gotten socked in the jaw, it dropped so far.

I was going to need more coffee.

The on-the-ball waitress appeared at my side as if she had read my mind, or at least seen the look plastered all over my button. She quickly put three more shots of espresso down on the table, and this snapped me out of my reverie.

As I looked up at her, jaw still hanging open, the gal winked at me and said, "It's all right, hon, you're still covered for those and I thought you needed a little something to shake you up." She then turned to my mysterious new guest and asked her if she'd like anything to drink.

"I'll have a mocha, please," spoke the beautiful little twist, who I suddenly noticed was still standing.

I quickly stood upright and motioned to the chair across from me. "Where are my manners, Miss...?"

"Egan," she replied, as she shrugged out of a shawl that was nearly as black as her own raven locks and slid gracefully into her chair. I couldn't help noticing the fine set of gams on this classy broad as she crossed them in front of me. "Susan Egan," she went on. "I'm in a bit of a jam and word on the street says you're the guy to help get me out of it."

"Susan Egan... hey wait a minute, I heard of you. You're that broad from Spirited Away, aren't you? You were the voice of Lin."

Then she smiled at me. It was so electrifying, I thought the joint was gonna lose power. I swear, the lights flickered once or twice, her smile was so high-wattage.

"Yes, that was me, but I've been in lots of other things. I'm surprised that's how you know me." She paused thoughtfully. Then, "Especially, well, a guy like you. What are you doing watching Japanese animated films?"

"Whaddya mean, 'a guy like you'?" I flared.

She flashed that smile again. "What I mean is, shouldn't you be out tailing suspects and tightening the screws on the hoodlums, like all the other private dicks out there? I'm not sure I could use a guy like you after all..."

"Hold on there, sister," I said, putting a hand up. "I got plenty of hobbies. That's my business. You got some skid rogue who's a wrong number? Need help with some palooka who's tryin' to grease you? Then I'm your man. You wanna talk hobbies, well, you're tootin' the wrong ringer."

"Hey, you brought it up," she said with a smirk. "You wearin' iron?"

I snorted. "Course I am, sweetheart. I'm not afraid to heat things up a bit. Don't get me wrong, though, I'm no hatchetman, so you don't need to worry about me shootin' things up everywhere I go. What's the job?"

She pushed a large brown envelope across the table at me. As I slid the empty coffee mugs out of the way, I tore open the top of the envelope with one finger and pulled out a bunch of black and whites. They were all pictures of her car, a nice old heap that had been restored. It was practically glowing, the wax job was so good, and it would have fetched a lot of lettuce for her on the open market were it not for one glaring defect: a wide, jagged swath of scratched paint down the passenger side of the vehicle.

"Nasty gash there," I stated.

Her eyes seemed to go from a soothing brown to a darker, flashier green. They were boring straight into me. "It is, yes. I hear he's been hitting all the boilers on my side of town, and I aim to put a stop to his clowning around."

"Ah, it's probably just some daisy with too much time on his hands. When I find the guy, you want me to rough him up a little?"

She sighed heavily. "God, no, don't put anybody in the meat wagon. I'm not interested in having the coppers all over me. Just get them to agree to pay for the repairs, that's all I want. And find out why they did it." She thought for a second. "Okay, so if you have to lean on them a little bit to make sure they don't do this again, then do it - but I don't wanna know about it. Savvy?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm wise to ya. It's duck soup," I said. "Now I need to tell you my payment policy. I-"

She jerked a quick look over her shoulder to the counter then looked back at me again. She had me pinned to the spot with those spellbinding hazel eyes of hers. "How about I buy you one of those muffins over there for starters, sweetcakes?"

There was that toothy grin again, all white and flashy and dazzling.

"So you do know my payment policy, then. Yeah, that muffin is fine," I said. "For starters."

And let me say this now: If crime-fighting involves a few perks along the way like these muffins they got at Ernesto's, then yours truly is going to be one well-fed and well-motivated gumshoe for a long time. The guy who runs that joint sure knows how to whip up a good muffin. And with broads like Ms. Egan seeking out my business, well now that's a clientele I think I could learn to live with.

I finished my last coffee, put on my coat and hat, and excused myself from the table.

"Ms. Egan."

"Good day to you, detective," she replied. Then, with another brilliant smile: "Brooksie."

I must've been red as a tomato when I settled up my tab with the waitress, because she was grinning at me too.

I let her keep the change, then turned once again to Ms. Egan. "I'll be in touch when I sort this joker out. In the meantime you just lay low and let me do all the spitting."

I left her there, sipping her mocha in the booth, and strolled back outside into the real world. The rain had started to fall, so I hiked up my mack around my ears and tipped my hat a bit lower. Somewhere out there was a goon with a crowbar, some giggle juice and too much free time on his hands.

I knew I'd catch him, sure as I knew there was a bottle of hooch waiting for me at Rick's Place at 5 o'clock. Quittin' time. My favorite time of day.

This hard-boiled post brought to you in the spirit of every Raymond Chandler novel I ever read. Yeah, so I ginned the story up a bit. They don't actually carry notepads and pencils around Ernesto's but they do come and take your order, if you're too lazy to order at the counter, you bums. And maybe I did meet the ravishing Susan Egan, and maybe I didn't.
What's it to ya?!


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